Sweden is a fascinating place to live. I love exploring what this country has to offer and learning more about its culture, people and history. One of the ways I like to do this is by finding out what Swedish place names mean. Often, they have connections to geographical features, history, people or quirky little stories that only locals know about. I thought I’d share with you a few things I’ve learned so far in my ongoing investigations, so your travels in this northern land become a little more informed.
Before I proceed, a disclaimer: I am not an expert in the Swedish language. I am fascinated by etymology and love Swedish, but I have not formally studied linguistics. Therefore, I’ve enlisted the help of a Swedish language expert. Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux of Swedish language and cultural training platform Bee Swedish is also intrigued by Swedish place names: “Personally, what I really enjoy about place names is that archaic words and forms are kept,” she says. “They are preserved because the original meaning is somehow forgotten, and in this way they have turned into sounds only. I think they can teach us about we consider important, relevant, significant.”
“I think [Swedish place names] can teach us about we consider important, relevant, significant.”
Geography and Swedish place names
Sweden’s inhabitants have historically had a strong connection to their physical environment and topographical features such as rivers, mountains, bays and so on. Therefore, you may notice some Swedish place names that include prefixes or suffixes such as sund (‘sound,’ as in Öresund), vik/vika (‘bay,’ as in Arvika), skog (‘forest,’ as in Skoghall), holm/holme (‘islet,’ as in Stockholm) and berg (mountain, as in Tallberg).
You’ll find the latter – berg – in many place names across Europe that stem from Germanic languages, including German, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian. It takes the form barrow in English.
Sofi actually grew up in a town with this suffix: Jakobsberg, north of Stockholm. The name translates to ‘Jacob’s mountain.’
“The ‘mountain’ in itself is not much, just a hill,” she says, “but Jakob was the real Baron Jakob Lilliehöök (1633-1657). His manor farm was called Jakobsberg after him as it was situated on that little hill. Very logical.”
Jakobsberg is a perfect example of the Swedish system of forming place names by putting two words together, which Sofi says is quite common.
Å (pronounced a bit like ‘aw’), has the same etymology as the French eau and the Latin aqua, meaning ‘water.’ Though I was aware that it means ‘stream,’ it wasn’t until I’d already been living in Sweden for three years before I realised why so many cities and towns on Sweden’s northeast coast ended with the letter å. Skellefteå, Luleå, Piteå and Umeå on Sweden’s eastern coast are named after the Skellefte, Lule, Pite and Ume rivers, which pass through the cities on their way to the Gulf of Bothnia. I passed signs for all of these rivers while riding up the Inlandsvägen on a motorcycle trip to the Arctic Circle. Recognising similarities in the names, I looked at a map and noticed that the rivers all flowed from western Sweden across the country to the east coast.
Another common suffix you’ll find in Swedish place names is ö or ön, meaning ‘island,’ as in the examples of Björnö in Västerås and Fårö off the coast of Gotland. Björn and får mean ‘bear’ and ‘sheep’ respectively. Though Sofi points out that a direct translation of Fårö as ‘Sheep Island’ is not in fact correct.
“Often not knowing the real etymology may make you draw your own – and faulty – conclusions,” she points out. “Får here is a version of far – to travel – and this is what the name is referring to.”
Ironically, the island is filled with many sheep, so it’s quite natural that one would make the wrong assumption!
So you can’t translate all Swedish place names literally, it seems. And I’d certainly hope not, in the case of Kroppkärrsjön, which I cycle past several days a week. The English translation is ‘the body marsh lake,’ which would imply that someone (or perhaps several unfortunate somebodies) had met their end here…
A Song of Ås and Fire
Game of Thrones watchers are often excited to discover there’s a town in Sweden called Västerås, which is pronounced very similarly to the fictional Westeros of the enormously popular novels and TV series. Unfortunately, there’s no connection to George R. R. Martin’s famous fantasy world. I initially (and incorrectly) concluded that the name must mean ‘western ridge,’ because the suffix –ås at the end of the name denotes a ridge, and väst means ‘west.’ In fact, the city was formerly known as Västra Aros, referring to the western mouth of the river Svartån.
Settlements and Swedish place names
Other Swedish place names designate the type of settlement they used to be in earlier times. There are many places ending in the suffix -stad, meaning ‘town,’ or simply ‘place.’ The suffix -by, found in places such as Torsby and Ronneby, denotes a village. This comes from the Old Norse býr, meaning ‘town’ or ‘dwelling.’ Anyone who has travelled through country areas in England will notice that there are a lot of towns ending with the same suffix. This is, of course, an indication of Viking settlements in England.
The Swedish suffix -torp, found in names such as Snidestorp and Hedenstorp, comes from the Old Norse þorp. Þorp is a cognate of the Old English thorp or thorpe, meaning a croft. German speakers may also recognise this suffix as the equivalent of their language’s dorf, as in Düsseldorf. The suffix -torp can also take the form ‑drup,‑rup or ‑trup in the Danish language.
There are many places with köping in their names. The verb köpa means ‘to buy’, and köping is the Swedish version of ‘borough,’ used in medieval times to refer to market towns. So when you spot Norrköping, Linköping, Nyköping, Jönköping and even the plain Köping, you know that once upon a time these places were centres of trade.
The further north you venture in Sweden, the more you’ll notice how different place names begin to look. You start to see a lot of double vowels and endings that look less Swedish, such as jaur, joki and järv. That’s because many place names are not Swedish in origin.
“…if you travel north, you will be reminded that Sweden has an indigenous population, speaking Sami and Meänkeli, and that place names follow another linguistic logic.”
The Sami (Sápmi in Swedish) are Sweden’s minority indigenous population, nomadic reindeer-herders who inhabit the far north of Scandinavia. They have their own distinct languages and traditions that have left their mark on the place names up here.
“If you travel north, you will be reminded that Sweden has an indigenous population, speaking Sami and Meänkeli, and that place names follow another linguistic logic,” Sofi points out. “Double k’s are allowed, like in Jokkmokk, and the K’s are always hard, regardless of what vowel follows.”
This rule was something Sofi pointed out to me after I mispronounced Kiruna (as ‘shee-rune-ah’). When I first moved to Sweden in 2012, I worked as an au pair for a family who lived near a village called Kil. In Swedish, kil means ‘wedge’ and is pronounced with a soft k and a long i: ‘sheeel.’ This is the general rule when it comes to pronouncing words beginning with ‘ki’ in Swedish, so naturally I’d been pronouncing Kiruna in the same way.
However, as Sofi pointed out to me, Kiruna is not a Swedish but a Meänkeli name.
“Meänkeli is one of our minority languages, linguistically close to Sami or Finnish, and following the phonetic rules of these language rather than Swedish. The word Kiruna in itself stems from Kiirunavaara (one of the nearby mountains), meaning ‘Mountain of the Rock Ptarmigan.’ In these languages, you make the effort of moving the sound from the back of your mouth (K) to the front (I).”
Outside influences on Swedish place names
The Sami are not the only non-Swedish people to have left their mark on Sweden’s place names. Finnskog, which translates to ‘Finnish Forest,’ is a region in western Sweden on the Swedish-Norwegian border named after the settlement of Finnish immigrants several centuries ago.
Other cultures have also left signs of contact between Swedes and people from earlier times. A country manor and nature reserve area in Värmland is called Apertin. The story goes that Scottish monks arrived in Värmland in the twelfth century and constructed a monastery, and the manor’s name is supposedly a Swedish variant of their hometown of Aberdeen.
Famous figures and Swedish place names
Other Swedish places are named after famous people. Kristinehamn (‘Kristine’s port’) in Värmland used to be called Bro but changed its name in 1642 in commemoration of Queen Kristina. Kristina is best remembered in Sweden for rejecting marriage, abdicating from the throne and converting to a Roman Catholicism.
Fredrika Dorotea Vilhelmina, the consort of Gustaf IV Adolf, lent all three of her given names to towns in Swedish Lapland: Fredrika, Dorotea and Vilhelmina.
Karlskrona, meaning ‘Karl’s crown’, is the capital of county Blekinge in southern Sweden and was named after Karl XI. The nearby town of Karlshamn (meaning ‘Karl’s port’) was named after Karl XI’s father, Karl X Gustav. Karlskoga (‘Karl’s forest’) and Karlstad (‘Karl’s city’) in Värmland are both named in honour of Karl IX.
So there you go – a short introduction to some Swedish place names! It’s by no means a comprehensive guide, but I hope you now have a better understanding of where some places in Sweden may get their names from.
When you’re travelling around this beautiful country, I strongly encourage you to keep your eyes open for road signs and ponder the meaning behind the places you pass through. It will really add to your understanding of Sweden and the Swedish people.
A huge thank you to Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux for her contribution to this article and clarification of my Swedish questions. Do you have a favourite place name in Sweden with a weird story or history behind it? Please share in the comments.